Literacy in “Awkward Black Girl”

[this is an excerpt from a final-paper-in-progress called “’Write the story yourself’: Literacy as Social Practice in Hiphop Feminist Art, Scholarship, and Activism”]

In her “Hip Hop and the Black Ratchet Imagination,” L. H. Stallings points to the way that Issa Rae, the creator and star of the web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, has her protagonist J “strap on hip hop” as an outlet for her righteous anger (136). Stallings is referring to those moments when, in fits of frustration, J sits down on her bed and writes furious, explicit, gangsta-inflected rhymes. In her text, Stallings focuses on J’s male-oriented gender performance to explore the queerness of what she calls the “Black Ratchet Imagination.” But we might also see J’s scenes writing raps, one of which appears in the series’s first episode, as a complex literacy event* that not only queers J’s gender identity (a theme brought up in other parts of the episode) but also queers, or questions, her middle-class status, her participation in the information economy, and professional rappers’ processes when writing ridiculous, shallow, expletive-laced lyrics.

The series’s pilot, “The Stop Sign,” immediately invokes the questions of representation that circulate within hiphop feminist scholarship. Before the scene even opens, we hear J ask, “Am I the only one who pretends I’m in a music video when I’m by myself?” We open up to a close-up of Issa Rae enthusiastically rapping along with “Booty Shawts,” by the Doublemint Twins, as she drives through the quaint side streets of L.A. While later in the episode J recaps her recent relationship fails, it’s noteworthy in this opening scene that she sings along with a female rapper describing how she elicits and rejects black male desire: “Niggas wanna feel up on this booty, they ain’t got a chance….They can’t even check me boo, I’m the mothafuckin’ shit.” A moment later, J’s music video reverie is interrupted when a dork she recently slept with pulls up beside her at a stop sign. In this moment, Issa Rae’s sampling of the Doublemint Twins’s song—because remember, Rae wrote the episode—highlights the conflicts in J’s black female identity between sexual power and sexual vulnerability.

Later in the episode, J sits down on her bed to express, through rap lyrics, her rage at being twice-dumped by her ex-boyfriend D. This is the episode’s literacy event par excellence, as we see J with notebook and pen in hand, as she puts it via voice-over, “writing violent rap lyrics in my bedroom.” The scene shows J working through a complex writing process that involves parsing her emotions, comparing her lyrics with popular discourses of rap, revising, performing, rewriting. In J’s writing process we see enacted aloud Bakhtin’s insistence that, as Jacqueline Jones Royster puts it, “Even when we are writing alone, we are still in community with others” (51), for example when J crosses out some lyrics in her notebook, then comments, “That’s too Nicki Minaj.” Rae’s dramatization of the process of writing rap also invokes Eve Dunbar’s insistence that the dividing line between oral and written discourse is not as firm in hiphop as Western-oriented theorists would have us believe. J’s writing process is a written/oral hybrid, as she variously writes and performs her lyrics, embodying in her physical movements the swagger and rhythmic surety she is unable to access beyond her closed bedroom door.

I particularly enjoy this scene for its subtle mockery of asinine rap lyrics, for example when J ad-libs the exaggeratedly stupid couplet “Stupid bitch nigga, I hope you drown/That’ll turn my frown upside down,” then writes it down while nodding with a self-satisfied smile; and again later, when she desperately asks aloud, “What rhymes with pussy nigga?” At the end of the episode, J reflects on her reasons for writing. As with the other texts we’ve considered, writing is posited as an important site for self-expression. She says of writing raps, “It’s been my secret way of coping with stress since the sixth grade. It gets me through my job, my relationships, and my life. I know it’s odd, but what can I say? I’m awkward.”

——-

* From earlier in the paper: Brian Street distinguishes between “literacy events” and “literacy practices” as the terms are used in New Literacy Studies, explaining that literacy events are meaningful instances of reading or writing, like discussing a play or writing a book, while literacy practices situate literacy events within “broader cultural and social concerns….Literacy practices, then, refer to the broader cultural conception of particular ways of thinking about and doing reading and writing in cultural contexts” (78).

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